It’s cold tonight–really cold. So naturally I’m thinking about ice. Blackwater ice

Ice, as everyone learns early on, is the solid existence of water. It’s what happens when H2O molecules stop sliding and start sticking, when each negatively charged oxygen bonds distantly to one or more neighboring hydrogens. Ice has an unusual, airy crystal framework, less dense than its liquid form, and capable of endless permutations: snowflake, hailstone, glacier, iceberg, clinking cube in a martini glass, glassy sheet on a lake, crystalline cloud, icicle.

Liquid is water in motion: it falls, flows, gushes, seeps, swirls, sprays, wells up and sinks. It, like us, is restless, seeking. Ice too can fall, and flow, glacially. It heaves and cracks; it drifts and melts. But mostly, it rests – sometimes for hundreds, thousands of years.

Once, we too rested. The season for that was known as winter. Snow settled on the earth during this time, and we took our cues from it. The land couldn’t be worked and travel became difficult, so we Ice on the Patuxentstayed in, lay low, turned contemplative, read, made music, were quiet. Ice fishermen, it seems to me, still follow the logic of winter. They put a bucket on the ice, drill a hole, and sit.

Now we have abandoned our rest; our work knows no season. Electrons flow and combustion engines cycle with insensible constancy. Snow becomes a manageable inconvenience, to be shoveled aside or melted with salt. Planes are de-iced and fly; ships break through bergs. We keep moving.

The net result of all this motion may be to eventually rid the planet of ice. It has happened before. Fifty-six million years ago, during a strange period called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, the world was so warm that crocodiles wandered the poles. Sea levels were hundreds of feet higher. Of every million air molecules, perhaps two thousand were carbon dioxide (only 400 are now). We are a long way from an ice-free planet, but if we burn an appreciable fraction of our remaining fossil fuels reserves, we could get there.

What would that world be like? Polar bears, penguins, and many less charismatic species that also make their living on ice would go extinct. So would entire human cultures—the Inuits, for example, as well as the Lapplanders and native people of Siberia. Humans living in temperate places would lose many of the activities that give life meaning. Patuxent River partly frozen

The planet would also lose one of its ways to cool itself. Ice reflects nearly all the sunlight that hits it. Open water and land absorb much more of that light, and warm accordingly. This is what’s known as a positive climate feedback. Unfortunately, positive feedbacks seem to be much easier to find than negative ones.

Without polar ice, it has become clear, the planet’s climate would be unrecognizable. Atmospheric circulation is driven by the difference in temperature between a hot equator and frigid poles. The poles are warming much faster than the equator now. If the Arctic Ocean becomes the temperature of water off California’s coast, as it apparently was in the PETM, weather patterns would be very different. Already, some scientists believe the loss of Arctic sea ice is affecting the jet stream, which delivers rain to the temperate regions.

The paleoclimatic record is full of drastic regional climate shifts resulting from far smaller perturbations than a total loss of ice. During the last ice ages, for instance, positive feedbacks amplified variations in Earth’s orbit to send ice furling and unfurling across continents. Glaciers marched down into the lower 48 and the mid-Atlantic was covered in spruce forest. It’s worth noting that the average global temperature at this time was only a few degrees Celsius less than it is now. What will happen if we go a few degrees in the other direction?

I think about these things, but they are centuries off—though how many centuries is unclear, as polar ice keeps melting faster than expected. It’s safe to say that in my lifetime, we will continue to have winter scenewinter, though it may become a shadow of itself. If it does, I don’t think most people will mind. A recent New York Times story reported that Florida’s population is about to overtake New York’s, as both immigrants and internal migrants choose the sunshine state over its chiller cousin (apparently not minding that a significant part of Florida could be under water in a century). New York governor Andrew Cuomo petulantly said he prefers to have seasons.

I do too. I appreciate the variety of bodily sensations and experiences I get in a temperate climate. I like that I can ski in the winter and swim in the summer. I also feel I’m in a shrinking minority. In a world governed by the logic of motion, ice and snow have become problems that we figure out how to solve. We have become all too good at it.

(photos of winter in West Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC; all by the author)

A project named Climate Wisconsin made some beautiful videos of how climate change might affect life in that chilly state. Check them out.

This post originally appeared on The Sieve.

Life presents us all with certain problems, one of them being how to move ourselves from place to place. I submit that if you live in a compact, congested city, there’s really only one sane solution: ride a bicycle. Biking is carbon-neutral, it’s efficient, it’s outdoors, it’s exercise, it’s free, it’s fun. It’s a win-win-win-win-win-win.

But as I’m dodging morning traffic on my way to work in Washington, DC, I do find myself wondering, am I just crazy? Could the health benefits from bike commuting possibly outweigh the risk of getting flattened by some latte-swilling, texting SUV driver? And even if I avoid that fate, what about the longer-term effects of the exhaust fumes I’m sucking in with every breath?

Morning traffic into DC
Morning traffic on my ride into DC.

Since I am a science writer, I feel compelled to try to answer such questions with data. So it was troubling to find that one of the few sources providing data on the risks of different modes of transport puts biking near the top in deaths per journeys, miles traveled, or time spent in transit (apparently based on a 15-year old British survey). Only motorcycling, which is essentially bicycling at the speed of car traffic, proved more dangerous. U.S. data from a similar time period and cited in this paper tell a similar story.

While these statistics are sobering, I realize their relevance to me is unclear. For one thing, they may not reflect the recent upsurge in biking, which has started to make the activity safer in some places (more on this later). But more to the point, they don’t answer the question I really need answered, which is what is my personal level of risk, at my level of biking competence, when I ride along my typical routes?

Data to answer that question are starting to become available. Dave Love, a public health researcher at Johns Hopkins University, told me about a study in which he and his colleagues biked around Baltimore with cameras affixed to their helmets, and collected data on how close cars came to them. When Love and his colleagues were riding in bike lanes, cars maintained the minimum three-foot passing distance generally considered safe. On roads without bike lanes, however, cars often came closer than three feet when passing. Based on plenty of personal experience, I am not surprised.

Bike lanes are a good start, but bikers are even safer on cycle tracks or paths completely separated from roads, says Greg Billing, advocacy coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Fully separated bike networks are common in European cities like Amsterdam, where the cycling rate is much higher and crashes are relatively rare. Separated bike facilities are just catching on here; the cycle tracks on DC’s 15th and L Streets, for example, are great, as far as they go. But for most U.S. bike commuters, including me, a fully protected ride to work is not yet an option.

Bike researchers and advocates also talk about safety in numbers: the idea that one cyclist in a sea of car traffic is far more vulnerable than a school of cyclists pedaling together. Indeed, one of the benefits of cycle tracks is that they concentrate bikers along certain routes. Three to four hundred bikers per hour ride on DC’s 15th Street cycle track during rush hour, says Billing; nearby streets see far less bike traffic. Beyond the safety issue, I have also found that having a dedicated space is an empowering experience; for once I feel like I, as a biker, actually belong here, and am not just riding on someone else’s road.

A protected bike lane in New York City. (from Wikimedia Commons)
A protected bike lane in New York City. From Wikimedia Commons.

The benefits of bike infrastructure are just starting to show up in city-wide statistics in the U.S. In Minneapolis, which Bicycling Magazine has ranked as the top biking city in the country, the number of reported crashes has remained steady even as ridership roughly doubled. Portland, Oregon, another top biking city, has seen a similar decrease in the crash rate, though the total number of accidents is still increasing. Billing says that as of the last time DC released crash data, for the year 2011, the city didn’t quite have the ridership to bend the curve on the crash rate. But it’s getting close: the fraction of the city’s residents who commute by bike increased from 1.16% to 4.1% from 2005 to 2012.

Air pollution exposure, the effects of which accrue gradually, presents a totally different kind of health risk from accidents, which either cause injury or death or don’t. But the same measures that have been shown to bring down the crash rate can also protect bikers from toxic car exhaust or pollution resulting from brake and tire wear. For instance, bikers separated from cars by even a few feet will inhale far fewer toxic particles, says Audrey de Nazelle, an environmental health researcher at Imperial College London. Researchers in London found that the number of fine particulates in the air decreases substantially even between the side of a sidewalk closest to the road and the far side. And even if you don’t have access to a bike lane or cycle track, that’s no reason to get in your car, de Nazelle adds: most studies have found that the amount of pollution in the air surrounding drivers sitting in traffic is greater than that on the side of the road where bikers ride, though cyclists may inhale more pollution because they are breathing harder.

De Nazelle and others are now starting to do studies that get at the question I’m trying to answer. They have run computer models that compute how accident and disease rates would change in various cities if a certain fraction of the population switched from driving to biking. Researchers who ran such studies run in London, Barcelona and the Netherlands found that the health benefits bicyclists gain from doing aerobic exercise, in terms of reduced heart disease, stroke and so on, overwhelm any increase in accident- and pollution-related risks (see table 1 of this review paper). Unfortunately, similar results for U.S. cities so far seem to be lacking.

The gold standard for assessing health risks and benefits is a long-term longitudinal study, which follows a large group of people for long enough to see lifestyle choices reflected in disease and death statistics. Such research has been key in establishing, for example, that exercise reduces the risk of heart disease, and smoking increases it. But these studies are expensive and difficult to run, and are therefore rare, and the few that have been run have not looked at bicycling specifically, Love says. So for the foreseeable future, studies like de Nazelle’s, which project established risk and benefit factors onto specific behaviors like biking, may be what we have to go with.

I asked the researchers I spoke with whether they have changed their biking decisions based on what they’ve learned; they said they had. Love says he tries to avoid riding at night and in bad weather, when crash rates are higher. De Nazelle has changed her route choice to prioritize safety over efficiency. “I used to always choose the quickest routes; now I choose routes that I think will have fewer cars,” she says. De Nazelle also frequently bikes with her child, and she notes that her risk calculation changed when she had a passenger’s safety as well as her own to consider.

So, armed with data and expert opinion, I return to my original question—am I insane to bike right down a major DC commuting artery with no bike lane? I think the answer is, it’s complicated. On the one hand, I assume certain avoidable risks by placing my unprotected self in proximity to large, polluting fast-moving metal boxes controlled by people of varying competence and sanity. (And before I get accused of being anti-driver, I should confess that I also own and drive a car—sometimes *gulp* even down the same congested road I bike to work on).

On the other hand, by biking I efficiently solve not one but two problems—transportation and exercise—in a way that minimizes the environmental impact of both. I can partly reduce risk by riding defensively, wearing a helmet, and being aware of the places where accidents are most likely to occur—namely intersections. Possibly I could decrease my risk further by riding on less busy streets. But because the area where I live and ride–Prince George’s County and northeast DC–is underserved in terms of bike infrastructure relative to the rest of the region, any route that would keep me off busy roads would also add substantial time to my commute. And it can be hard to afford that time.

That’s my rationalization, but I have to admit I am also driven partly by stubborn idealism. I like to believe that if I assert my right to ride on city streets, others may be inspired to do the same. And if city planners see enough of us ditching our cars for bikes, they will eventually pay attention and build us a bike lane or cycle track, as the DC Department of Transportation long-term plan seems to imply. The more cities encourage biking and keep bikers safe, the cleaner, safer and more livable the urban environment becomes for all of us. Sometimes creating the future you want to live in means taking a bit of risk in the present.

What about you? What factors play into your decision to bike (or not bike) on certain streets?

This article was amended to reflect the fact that cyclists may inhale more air pollution than drivers because of their faster breathing rates. Most studies have found that the amount of pollution in the air surrounding drivers sitting in traffic is greater than that on the side of the road where bikers ride.

This post originally appeared on The Sieve.

Update 12/29/2013: In response to the feedback it received, the FDA has decided to revise the Produce Rule. Michael Taylor, the official in charge of the process, promises updated language that will be open to public comment by early summer. Stay tuned!

It’s that magical time of year—after the big harvests and before the hard freezes—when apples at the farmers markets in my area burst with tangy goodness, when the last of the summer tomatoes and peppers mingle with luxurious piles of greens, roots, and winter squash, and when all seems right in the world.

So I admit I found it somewhat hard to believe, while admiring the overflowing stands at my local market last Sunday, that federal bureaucrats would want to make it harder for such enterprises to operate. But that is exactly what some small farmers and advocates are warning. They fear that food safety regulations proposed by the Food and Drug Administration would impose onerous costs on small produce growers, potentially driving many out of business altogether.

An endangered scene?

An endangered scene?

The set of regulations arousing farmers’ ire is the “produce rule” of the Food Safety Modernization Act, a law Congress passed in 2010 in response to a rash of well-publicized foodborne illness outbreaks. The act directs FDA to develop and implement “science-based” approaches to food safety, which for the US government seems to mean finding ways to prevent bacterial contamination of food. In March, the agency released a set of proposed rules specifying things like how often produce farmers must test irrigation water, when they can apply manure to fields, how they should manage on-farm animals, and what kinds of records they must keep. The rules are now in a comment period, with a crucial deadline set for November 15.

Thanks to lobbying from sustainable farming advocates, the law does provide some relief for the kinds of growers who sell directly to real people. The proposed produce rule exempts farms with less than $500,000 a year in sales from some requirements, and gives them extra time to comply with others. But small farms covered by the regulations will still face a substantial cost. The FDA itself admits in an economic analysis that if its rules are implemented as written, “the rate of entry of very small and small [farm] businesses will decrease.”

No one disputes the need for food safety. But for many growers already committed to delivering healthy, safe produce, the proposed regulations feel like a slap in the face. Few cases of contamination have been traced to small farms, these farmers point out; indeed the fact that such farmers mostly sell their products locally greatly reduces the risk they will be a source of foodborne illness. As Maryland-based farmers and long-time sustainable food advocates Nick Maravell and Michael Tabor wrote in a recent column, “Common sense and following the data of recent food safety scares lead us to a very strong conclusion: the further the food travels from the farm to the consumer, the more opportunities it has to become a food safety problem.”

In Tabor and Maravell’s view, the FDA regulations could lead to a future in which only sterilized, shrink-wrapped vegetables can be legally sold. That seems to be an extreme view; no grower I’ve talked to seems to think farmers markets will actually disappear. But people are nervous. Ivor Chodkowski, a vegetable grower in Louisville, Kentucky (and a former employer from my organic farming days) says he has not studied the regulations in depth, but he questions FDA’s commitment to protecting small growers. “My suspicion is the law places a burden on small farmers that is not appropriate to their size or the level of risk they pose.”

Others are not yet convinced they need to be concerned. Eric Plaskin, co-owner of Waterpenny Farm in Virginia’s Rappahannock County, says he too hasn’t studied the regulations closely, but he doubts FDA has either the desire or the resources to enforce the more drastic regulations some of his colleagues are warning about. And with all the normal pressures of farming, FSMA isn’t high on his list of worries, Plaskin says. “It’s hard to react to something that isn’t real.”

Ellen Polishuk, co-owner of the Virginia-based Potomac Vegetable Farms (and another former employer), is also taking a wait and see approach, but warily. “We’re paying attention, we are concerned,” she says.

Unlike Waterpenny, PVF earns enough to be subject to the full burden of FSMA produce regulations. However, Polishuk feels confident she has already put in place many of the required improvements, and has the resources to adapt to any other reasonable regulations the FDA might hand down. But she also agrees that certain aspects of the regulations could make life difficult for smaller growers. “We have money to do capital improvements,” she says. “Maybe for a grower half our size or a quarter of our size, those kinds of improvements would be more economically damaging.”

These warnings can’t be dismissed as just a bunch of farmers and activists being paranoid. Even people from federal agencies have raised concerns. Former US deputy secretary of agriculture Kathleen Merrigan has been quoted as saying the regulations have “the potential to transform, disrupt, improve and potentially destroy some operations.”

To those concerned about the law’s impact, the FDA has provided little reassurance. Michael Taylor, the official in charge of implementing FSMA, has promised that he will not take a “one-size-fits-all” approach to food safety. But this is cold comfort to some, who worry that as a former Monsanto executive, Taylor may not be attuned to the needs of growers who aren’t supplying large, multi-state operations. I haven’t had the opportunity to interview Taylor (a call to his office was not returned), and I’m not aware of any evidence that he’s planning to use FSMA as a weapon against small farmers, but the anodyne statements he has given to other journalists reporting on FSMA do little to inspire confidence that he has small growers’ interests at heart.

As someone who shops at a farmers market nearly every week, I am, if not quite alarmed, at least concerned. And I am frustrated that the national media—the people who are supposed to hold government and industry accountable—have barely reported on FSMA, much less the produce regulations. Even the food activist community has been mostly silent, choosing instead to push for labeling of genetically modified food. As a result, this may be the first you’ve heard of FSMA. But it will affect every eater in America, and if you are one of them, this might be a good time to start paying attention.

I am also struck, as someone who has written about Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, how little seems to have changed in the national conversation about science’s proper role in agriculture. In her 1962 book, Carson strongly criticized the supposedly “scientific” methods being used to try to control insects on farms, and cited an armada of scientific studies on the health and environmental effects of agricultural chemicals then in use. Going further, she warned that large-scale monoculture farming combined with large-scale pesticide spraying had thrown off the “balance of nature,” which had in the past kept ecosystems healthy.

With its top-down, command-and-control approach toward bacteria, the FDA has now reopened this bitter debate on a different front. Today’s regulators and food safety groups seem to believe that the right rules and practices in place can control the risks inherent in large-scale industrial agriculture and the system can be made to function safely. They are essentially repeating the arguments the of the 1960s (and to some extent, today’s) pesticide industry. Meanwhile, small growers and sustainable farming advocates argue that industrial agriculture is broken, and that their model provides an alternative—one where well-functioning, diverse ecosystems, if allowed to thrive, can keep foodborne pathogens in check.

In at least one sense, the small farmers certainly seem to have the data on their side. As they frequently point out, few foodborne illness outbreaks originate at small farms (though occasionally they do). The FDA website provides a list of cases of contamination it has investigated over the past few years. You’ve probably heard of some of them—E. coli in spinach, salmonella in peanut butter, cyclosporiasis in cilantro. All of them, as far as I can tell, were traced to large farms, some of which were as far away as Mexico.

Critics of the produce rule also point out that it fails to take advantage of well-established and scientifically based conservation practices that could enhance food safety. Because so much land in our country is privately owned, farmland conservation programs are critical to providing habitat for wildlife. Even small strips of grass and other vegetation around crops have been shown to block E. coli, one of the most common harmful foodborne bacteria, from spreading onto fields. But the proposed FSMA produce regulations do nothing to encourage these practices.

In some cases the proposed regulations even conflict with the National Organic Program, which (ideally, at least) provides guidance for growing healthy food in a sustainable manner. One of the foundational practices of organic farming is applying animal manure—sometimes composted, sometimes fresh—to fields, in order to provide fertility for crops. In a properly managed compost pile, potentially pathogenic bacteria should quickly be outcompeted by beneficial species. Nevertheless, proposed FSMA rules require lengthy intervals between manure and compost applications and vegetable harvesting, making this practice impractical if not impossible.

Perhaps most worryingly, the cost of compliance with the produce rule appears to fall squarely on the farmer. FDA estimates farms with under $500,000 in annual sales will need to spend nearly $13,000 per year to comply. In an industry of already razor-thin margins, that could prove a major burden for many farmers. And for a law that is ostensibly intended to promote health, putting growers of the most healthy kind of food—fresh fruits and vegetables—out of business would seem to be, to put it mildly, counterproductive.

Preventive health at its best

The irony of the situation is that few, if any, farmers actually oppose reasonable food safety measures. Indeed, small farmers have strong incentives to be conscientious about keeping their produce safe, because no one has more to lose from an incident of food contamination than someone whose business depends on personal relationships with customers. And even critics of how FSMA is being implemented grant that its original intent was good and that it contains some positive measures.

But the FDA’s proposed produce regulations reflect an anemic and outdated view of how science can help improve our food system. For one thing, our environment teems with bacteria, molds, and other microbes, and it is absurd to think we can eliminate all of them from our food. Indeed, scientists are now telling us that in some cases, it may not even be in our best interest to try. We are learning that the benign bacteria in our environment vastly outnumber the bad, and that many of them actually enhance health. As Michael Pollan wrote recently in the New York Times, “some of my best friends are germs.”

Even more telling, however, is how thoroughly FSMA fails to address the real problems with our food system. Though FDA claims the law will prevent 1.75 million illnesses a year, it admits that only around 14,000 cases of foodborne illness have actually been traced to tainted produce in the 15 years from 1996 to 2010. Reducing that number would certainly be a good thing, but it is already tiny compared to the number of people suffering from other food-related health crises. Most obvious of these is that nearly two-thirds of our population is either overweight or obese, and thus at heightened risk for heart disease and other illnesses. Cases of diabetes have also soared in recent decades. And both of these crises can be traced in large part to our agriculture policies, in particular the misplaced subsidies that make many kinds of processed food cheaper and more accessible than vegetables.

These may not be food safety issues per se, but they could be exacerbated if the produce rule does kick vegetable farmers out of the marketplace. Plenty of other modern agricultural practices, meanwhile, do seem to fall squarely into food safety regulators’ purview. Perhaps most alarmingly, drugs commonly fed to meat animals to encourage faster growth may be creating antibiotic-resistant superbugs. And despite lessons supposedly learned over 50 years ago from Silent Spring, American farmers spray far more pesticides on their fields today than they did in the early 1960s. These chemicals are far from benign; many are known or suspected carcinogens, neurotoxins, and endocrine disruptors.

These are the true food safety problems, and FSMA does nothing to address any of them. Instead, it threatens to reduce the number of places where consumers can buy what are probably the most effective preventive health measures known to science: fresh, healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables. And that, I think we can all agree, takes us in entirely the wrong direction.

More information:

For the full text of the FSMA and the proposed produce rule, go to the FDA’s website.

If you don’t want to slog through the 548-page produce rule, I don’t blame you. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition provides a helpful summary and analysis.

And you can comment on the produce rules through November 15.

It’s been a hard year for Yosemite National Park. First, the third-largest wildfire in California history torched its northwest corner. Then the government shutdown forced it to pass its 123rd birthday alone.

Whether this latter fact is good news or bad, however, may depend on your perspective. If you were planning to visit Yosemite in the last two weeks, it was surely bad. But if you worry about the ecological impact of the park’s nearly 4 million annual visitors, most of whom pass through the valley, a few days’ respite might seem to be a small upside to an otherwise bleak moment in American life.

The view between Cathedral Spires and El Capitan

The view between Cathedral Spires and El Capitan

I had the good fortune to plan my Yosemite trip for the week before the shutdown. It was late September, which meant little water in the falls and cold nights in the mountains. The park was relatively unpeopled; my backpacking companion and I had no trouble negotiating the park’s permit system, and were among only a handful of hearty Half Dome summiters. The panorama from the top was thrilling, as were the steep, cable-assisted climbs up and down. But probably the visual highlight of the trip for me happened the next day on the Four Mile Trail, which plunges from Glacier Point down more than 3000 feet to the Valley. One of the trail’s innumerable switchbacks opened up a breathtaking view to the west, between the towering cliffs of the Cathedral Spires and El Capitan. My friend said he felt like he was in Lord of the Rings; I felt transported into an Ansel Adams photograph.

Monumental western landscapes like Yosemite Valley and the Grand Canyon have long been important parts of the collective American consciousness. But I later learned that the iconic view my friend and I marveled at is actually a fairly recent invention. By coincidence (I assume), the day after we returned from Yosemite, environmental historian Bill Cronon and ecologist Paul Robbins from the University of Wisconsin, Madison were on the radio show Science Friday discussing, among other things, Yosemite. Cronon pointed out that though the park is often considered almost the definition of natural splendor, the iconic views from the valley floor are partly a human creation. Nineteenth century Native American fires opened up the floor’s forests, giving way to meadows and making visible the massive cliffs, which later inspired John Muir and others to push for making Yosemite a national park. Of course, one of the results of white people’s desire to marvel at Yosemite is that the native people who had made  in the valley their home for millennia were forced out.

Cronin has long critiqued our cultural conception of wilderness as a place without people (“where man himself is a visitor who does not remain,” the 1964 Wilderness Act put it). Cronon’s University of Wisconsin colleague, the ecologist Don Waller, has also criticized our choices for wilderness from a biological perspective, arguing that U.S. agencies have historically prioritized the grandeur of “rocks and ice” over factors like biodiversity in land preservation decisions. At the same time, Waller has done research showing that “protected” areas in Wisconsin have often fared worse than other places in terms of plant biodiversity, largely because bans on hunting have allowed deer to flourish and devastate native plant communities. In Yosemite’s wilderness, park managers struggle to keep wildlife wild and maintain ecologically important fire regimes while still providing access to thousands of solitude-seeking hikers. Meanwhile, in the Valley, unlimited carloads and busloads of tourists arrive from all over the world, ready to admire cliffs and photograph deer and then perhaps relax with a beer in an air conditioned lodge. It is hard to imagine that when Muir and Teddy Roosevelt were standing at Glacier Point, they were imagining a scene below that would one day resemble, in the words of one Internet commenter, a Costco parking lot.

A view from Glacier Point today

A view from Glacier Point today

Yosemite is a quintessential example of a human paradox: we are attracted to wild landscapes, and yet we can’t seem to stop ourselves from taming them. The park’s soaring cliffs and exposed rock faces are as wild—by which I mean as nonhuman, as “other”—as any place I can remember being. We can’t make a living on them, and we aren’t meant to. And yet we are we powerfully drawn to this inhospitable place. Why? I submit that it is rock’s very otherness that transports us out of our normal lives and concerns. When I stand among huge cliffs, our everyday concerns are far away and our problems feel insignificant. As one shutdown-defying rock climber argued, we are free.

I abhor the government shutdown. I am outraged that politicians have blithely caused real pain to millions of federal workers and all those who depend on so-called “non-essential” government services. I am deeply saddened that this debacle will probably diminish America’s position as a leader in the scientific world, and I can’t help but wonder if such diminishment is partly what the extremists behind the shutdown were hoping for. And I feel sorry for all those people who were unable to make a long-planned visit to a beautiful place because of our elected officials’ childish behavior. The signs keeping Americans and others out of places we have supported through our own tax dollars were some of the most obviously infuriating symbols of this failure of democracy.

But the shutdown also provided an opportunity for us to think about what responsibilities might come with owning and control a piece of land, especially one that so many of us cherish. In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey decried the construction of access roads in Utah’s Arches National Monument, arguing that providing too much access could destroy the very thing people were coming to see. Yosemite Valley was probably already pretty far down that road in Abbey’s day, and I’m sure it has only gotten worse since. Many have suggested that the damming of the Tuolumne River, which flooded Hetch Hetchy, the next valley over from Yosemite, is what killed John Muir, who fought a bitter battle against it. But would he be any less pained by the present Disneyfication of Yosemite Valley? I doubt it.

Half Dome from Glacier Point

Half Dome from Glacier Point

As the shutdown ends and beloved Yosemite Valley fills with cars and people again, perhaps it is time to consider whether this is really the right way to treat a national treasure.

This post originally appeared on the Sieve.

The once-mighty monarch butterfly migration—an extraordinary natural phenomenon that passes right through our neighborhoods and fields—has been reduced to a trickle. Where were you all summer, did you notice?

For how things used to be, here is Annie Dillard describing the event in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 1974:

The monarchs clattered in the air, burnished like throngs of pennies, here’s one, and here’s one, and more, and more. They flapped and floundered; they thrust, splitting the air like the keels of canoes, quickened and fleet. It looked as though the leaves of the autumn forest had taken flight, and were pouring down the valley like a waterfall, like a tidal wave, all the leaves of hardwoods from here to Hudson’s Bay.

Dillard seems to be describing a scene of almost unimaginable natural wealth. The world had such an excess of raw material that it could make monarch butterflies not by the ones and twos, but by the millions. Indeed, estimates of the number of monarchs that used to overwinter in Mexican fir and pine forests range up to a billion. In pictures, the trees seem to be literally dripping with butterflies.

An oyamel fir covered in overwintering monarchs. From wikimedia commons.

An oyamel fir covered in overwintering monarchs. From wikimedia commons.

I fear that in the four decades since Pilgrim, we have become accustomed to an invisible poverty. One can understand the intensity of seeing the migration in full force, as Dillard did—of being left feeling “inundated, drained.” But what is the experience of not seeing the monarch migration? An uneasy emptiness? A directionless longing? Only those people whose work involves seeing—namely the gardeners and the scientists—seem to realize the enormity of what is happening.

Case in point: this year, I have seen a total of one monarch butterfly. Having been told they were scarce, I went outside and watched it flutter, fold its wings and drink nectar from a flower, and fly away again. I felt both pleased with my brief connection with the creature, and sorry for its solitude. But then I went back to being distracted by many other things; I admit I haven’t been focusing much on monarchs.

Then again, I presume, neither was Annie Dillard. She was just looking out her window.

A pollinating monarch. Photo by Beate Popkin.

A pollinating monarch. Photo by Beate Popkin.

Among gardeners, however, even a single monarch sighting is now enough to set off a volley of emails. Gardeners these days are all gaga about pollinators, and now in late summer, their joe pye weeds, ironweeds and black-eyed susans swarm with bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, even hummingbirds. But lucky indeed is the gardener who spies one of the rare orange and black Technicolor beauties—the butterfly which, in Dillard’s thrilling words, appears at rest “like a fleck of tiger.”

Gardeners focus on the small scale; scientists look at the big picture. And many–though not all–of them are also documenting a monarch impoverishment. Probably the most startling evidence comes from Mexico, where the forested area covered by overwintering monarchs has fallen precipitously in recent years; if the trend continues, the population will soon reach zero.

Scientists have identified several factors behind this decline. Perhaps most obviously, the monarch’s overwintering habitat in Mexico has been reduced by logging, although what’s left is now protected. Unusually hot weather has also taken its toll, drying out monarch egg sacs and the nectar plants the adult butterfly relies on for food. But more than anything, the monarch butterfly’s fate is wrapped up with that of a genus of plants—Asclepias, or milkweed—because it is only from milkweeds that its caterpillars feed.

Isn’t it risky, you might ask, for a species to stake its evolutionary fate on one type of plant? It would seem so, but for millions of years this gamble apparently paid off. Common milkweed is a hearty plant that, as its name suggests, grows and reproduces readily with no human intervention; it was ubiquitous on the prairies that long occupied the central part of our continent. But as anyone who has visited the Midwest knows, the diverse prairie ecosystem has been almost entirely replaced by corn and soybean monocultures. Even this might not be such a problem for the monarch if milkweeds could grow in field margins and between crop rows, as they used to. But corn and soy are now mostly planted “Roundup-Ready,” meaning that farmers can douse their fields with unprecedented quantities of herbicide. The milkweed seems to have become a casualty of Monsanto-enabled agricultural efficiency, and migrating monarchs now find themselves flying over vast food deserts.

Milkweeds in flower - but no monarchs.

Milkweeds in flower – but no monarchs.

It’s a troubling scene, but there is hope. Gardeners are now dedicating themselves to help the milkweed, and thus the monarch, make a comeback. If milkweed is not going to sprout in prairies and farm fields, well, by golly it will grow in the nation’s suburbs. My mother, a native plant landscaper in Kentucky, recently became the 6,895th person to plant a “monarch waystation,” which is a habitat containing a certain number of milkweed varieties and other nectar plants. For her efforts, she received a certificate and a sign from Chip Taylor, the University of Kansas biologist and monarch butterfly devotee who launched the waystation program. Taylor and his conservation compatriots are betting that they can create managed ecosystems to replace the natural functions we’ve lost, though so far the monarch has continued to decline.

In the end, the fate of this project depends on how well scientists and gardeners are able to see like a monarch. For the butterfly, the world is milkweed, pollen plants, Mexican fir trees, other monarchs, birds, North, and South. Everything else is just plastic—worthless. In our complicated human world, by contrast, monarchs are just one of thousands of pieces, and hardly the most vital to our survival. It is thus perhaps not surprising that we lost sight of them in all their abundance, and blithely obliterated their food source. It is impressive we were smart enough to piece together their life cycle and migration routes, and to see the connection between herbicide and butterfly decline. And it is inspiring that thousands are now putting their gardens in service of this regal insect. It will be years before we know if they have succeeded, but theirs is unquestionably a noble effort.

Gardeners and scientists know that nature has given us riches beyond measure. Evolution needed billions of years to create the beautiful and charismatic monarch butterfly, which has now thrived on this continent for a few million years. And yet this butterfly may all but disappear within one human generation, without even being deliberately hunted like the passenger pigeon. What are we to make of this careless catastrophe? As it has since the passenger pigeon vanished, life is going on. We can presumably live without the milkweed and the monarch, and even without the birds that feed on monarch caterpillars. But why would we want to? Why choose poverty when we were given wealth?

To avoid that dismal fate, we need to be willing to see—to really see—what a poor world we are in danger of creating.

This post originally appeared on The Sieve.

We’ve all heard about the dangers of non-native plants: they outcompete natives; they carpet forest floors and smother roadsides; they cost us billions of dollars a year in control efforts. They’ve colonized huge swaths of the mid-Atlantic, where I live; I’ve written about them on this very blog. But is it possible that some introduced plants could prove beneficial in their new environments?

Palm fruit in El Yunque National Forest

That’s certainly what Ariel Lugo thinks. Lugo, the director of the US Forest Service’s International Institute of Tropical Forestry, has long promoted a more catholic attitude toward plants of diverse origin. I recently visited him at the University of Puerto Rico’s Agriculture Experimentation Station in San Juan, where his office sits among groves of eucalyptus and bamboo—both of which humans introduced to the island. According to Lugo, the immigrant vegetation reflects the welcoming Puerto Rican spirit. “Here, we don’t persecute trees,” he says. “The federal government is the only one that persecutes trees.”

As far as Lugo is concerned, any species that can help his island recover from past environmental devastation—near complete deforestation, large-scale cultivation of sugarcane and other crops—is welcome. In 1992 he published a paper comparing the understories of pine and mahogany plantations with those in regrowing native forests. Lugo found that similar numbers of species were growing in both places, and that many of the understory plants in the plantations were native. Moreover, he found the older plantations were starting to give way to native overstory trees. “The study challenges the conventional dogma…and underscores the dangers of generalizing about all tropical tree plantations or all natural tropical forests,” he wrote. According to science writer Emma Marris, it took Lugo almost a decade to get his paper accepted.

And when he did publish it, the backlash was fierce. “He almost got hung,” says Dov Sax, an ecologist at Brown University. A 1991 letter in the journal Conservation Biology accused Lugo of “rais[ing] the dangerous specter of legitimacy for exotic organisms in natural environments.” But since then, more ecologists have come to accept that exotic trees can be useful for restoring highly disturbed ecosystems. “That view was unpopular at the time, but it’s been born out,” Sax says. “It’s not true everywhere, but it’s true lots of places.”

To explain where he got his unconventional ideas, Lugo told me a story from his graduate student days. He was studying the tabonuco, a beautiful, blotchy-barked tree native to Puerto Rico’s rain forest. But Lugo noticed he didn’t find tabonucos sprouting from the abandoned farm fields that make up most of the island. Instead, he saw guava trees, native to the American mainland. He didn’t mind, though: “I love guavas,” he says. “I ate tons of guavas in the 1970s.”

Two decades later, those same fields were dominated by the African tulip tree, another exotic (as the name suggests), and now the most common tree on the island. Lugo realized at this point that he was seeing forest communities that were new to science: “novel systems,” he calls them. He also realized that all-native forests weren’t coming back—now or ever. “The oldest of these systems that we can surmise are 80 years old, and there’s no indication they will revert back to native systems,” he says. That’s because he’s seen them survive “the ultimate test for the Caribbean”—hurricanes. “If you don’t survive hurricanes you don’t belong here,” says Lugo. “These species have seen hurricanes and they lose branches like everybody else. I don’t think they’ll ever go.”

But novel systems don’t discriminate against native species either. They’re more like a neighborhood in Queens where long-time residents and fresh-off-the-boat newcomers go about their lives in dynamic harmony. And Lugo, for one, celebrates his island’s cosmopolitanism. “We have introduced rats in the native El Yunque forest; and we have African bees in the native palm forests; and we have endemic birds [birds unique to the island] in plantations constructed by people,” he says. “The species don’t see the distinction. They are now all engaged in a new order.”

Puerto Rico, often called the gateway to the Caribbean, has long been a place where people and species mix. It was settled at various times by groups from both North and South America, and eventually became dominated by the Taino people from the Orinoco River basin in present-day Venezuela. In 1493, Christopher Columbus encountered the Tainos, setting the course for colonization, exploitation, and an often brutal mixing of people and culture.

But, as environmental historian Alfred Crosby has pointed out, colonization has always been about ecology as well as culture. As early as 1509, the Spanish introduced cattle and other livestock to the island. They also introduced and grew crops from other parts of the tropics: coffee (originally from Africa), ginger (from Asia), tobacco (from mainland North America), rice, cacao, and tropical fruits from all over. Above all, though, Puerto Rico produced sugar (from south Asia); by the early 20th century island was practically one large sugar plantation. Only in the past 80 years have forests been allowed to regrow; a little over half the island is now reforested.

Non-native bamboo: invasive pest or carbon storage virtuoso?

Puerto Rico today is a stew of Spanish, African, and (in smaller proportions) Native American ancestry, and its flora is no less varied. So does it matter if part of the species diversity is imported? That depends who you ask. Many ecologists fear that introduced species will inevitably cause extinctions of native species, on the theory that there are only so many ecological niches to go around. This concern is especially pertinent on islands, which tend to be small and have large numbers of endemic species that occur nowhere else.

“That’s what first got me into trouble with my colleagues,” Lugo says when I bring this argument up, and he offers another story. In 1986, the famous evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson invited Lugo to speak about tropical extinctions at the National Forum on BioDiversity (the term “biodiversity” was coined in connection with this forum). “So for the first time I examined extinctions in Puerto Rico,” Lugo says, “and to my horror I found there were hardly any. So that’s what I said there.” For sharing this unexpectedly positive finding, Lugo reportedly got yelled at in the Smithsonian cafeteria.

Lugo also rejects–for Puerto Rico at least–the argument that exotic species are less good than natives at providing vital “ecosystem services”: filtering water, providing food for insects, or moving or holding onto nutrients. “The services that El Yunque provides with its native species composition are the same services as we get from other mountains that have introduced forests,” he says. “The water is not different coming out of an introduced species forest or a native forest. The productivity, the carbon sequestration, the support of native species—we’ve written a lot about this.”

Lugo and 18 other scientists recently threw some new fuel on this long-simmering debate with an article in Nature entitled “Don’t Judge Species on Their Origins.” The authors were challenging what they view as an outdated orthodoxy, according to which native species are preferred to non-native ones for no reason other than that they are native. “Nearly two centuries on from the introduction of the concept of native­ness, it is time for conservationists to focus much more on the functions of species, and much less on where they originated,” the authors wrote.

Dan Simberloff, a University of Tennessee biologist and prominent invasive species researcher, fired back. In a response signed by 140 other scientists, Simberloff accused Lugo and his colleagues of “assailing two straw men”—the notion that invasion biologists oppose all exotic species, and the notion that they ignore the benefits of these species. In Simberloff’s view, Lugo and his coauthors are representing a fringe position that can “lead to bad decisions” in managing natural areas.

But Lugo defends the article; in fact he says the opinion he and his colleagues put forth was mild. “We’re more radical than what we showed there,” he told me. “We wrote something people could take.”

After talking to numerous people on both sides of the debate, I have to come to feel these rhetorical volleys may shed more heat than light on the ecological value of non-native plants. In fact, I suspect that Lugo and Simberloff—both first-rate scientists—would actually agree on most points of fact. But I also suspect that beneath the scientific debate are divergent—and passionately held—views about what kind of world these scientists want to live in. The Lugos of the world find novel species mixtures scientifically interesting and ecologically useful; the Simberloffs worry about unique species and communities being irrevocably lost. Both, it would seem, have a point.

In the end, though, what kind of world we want may not matter. We’re not going to turn back the ecological clock. Indeed, the rate of change is increasing: human population growth is putting tremendous pressure on every ecosystem in the world, while global trade is mixing species at never-before-seen rates. On top of that, we’re in the midst of the most profound ecological disturbance in human history—climate change—which may make the whole concept of native species obsolete. What difference does it make if something is native to a place where it can no longer survive?

In the future, we’re probably going to need all the help we can get. So if non-native plants can help stabilize disturbed ecosystems, let them, says Lugo. “To me, it’s good news that nature reacts to us by remixing and reforming and reshaping and restructuring,” he says. “Novel systems that are a reflection of our activities—I love those. They’re saving our ass.”

* * *

What do you think? Should we be holding the line against non-native species, or is it time to ditch the “native vs. non-native” paradigm? Is there a way to find a middle ground?

Kentucky’s Red River Gorge is a giant sandstone layer cake hollowed out by water and covered in life. On its ridges and slopes grow the mixed hardwoods of the eastern U.S.—oaks, maples, tulip poplars—along with hardy pines, mountain laurels, and an occasional bigleaf magnolia. But in the Gorge’s stream-carved ravines, plants from a colder time still find a home. Descend into one of these valleys on a hot summer day and you may find yourself suddenly wrapped in a cave’s chilly breath and a hemlock grove’s dusky shade.

Hemlocks by a stream in the Red River Gorge

A hemlock-lined stream in Red River Gorge

Since before I can remember, I have been hiking the Gorge. As a child, a hike was pure bounding adventure, and it was only thanks to the adults that we eventually settled down in some beautiful spot to eat our sandwiches. As a teenager with friends, a hike was freedom, a chance to expand from our city selves. We would lace our boots and set out full of spirit and chatter, eager to rack up miles, scramble up boulder piles, run full speed down slopes in the rain yelling. We gazed up at the huge cliffs and arches and allowed ourselves to be awed.

But of the millions of trees we passed on these hikes, I don’t think we even stopped to look at one. We were too restless, too hungry for challenge and too in thrall to the grandeur of rock. If we had paused for a moment in a quiet valley, we might have seen the hemlocks full of life. We might have enjoyed their light green fringes of new growth, and felt their downy needles.

In Kentucky, the eastern hemlock is one of those species left over from a colder time. As the last ice age ended and glaciers receded poleward, trees and other plants moved across the landscape, tracking their ideal climates. The hemlock, perhaps a slower migrater than most trees, eventually found its way to the understories of cool Appalachian river valleys. As it grew, its thick needles, which fan out in dense, overlapping branches, cast a shade so deep that few other species could grow in it. Thus the hemlock created its own preferred conditions, and perpetuated itself in its new home.

As the hemlock grew on the banks of streams, its perpetual shade also cooled the flowing water. Trout, dace, and salamanders thrived. The trees dropped needles into the streams, and stoneflies arrived to eat them. Spiders arrived to eat the stoneflies. Over time, a community of life grew up around the hemlock. Ecologists call it a keystone species.

Hemlock needles in a stream

Hemlock needles

Today, I offer a lament for the Red River Gorge hemlocks, which shaded my childhood hikes without my knowing it. They shade less now because their lower branches are mostly bare. In a few years they may not shade at all. A tiny insect is extracting these trees one by one from the forest.

The hemlock’s struggle is, on one level, simply biology. But it is biology made tragedy by our careless shuttling of species around the globe. The eastern hemlock has cousins in Asia and the West Coast, separated by eons of evolution. In that time, a sucking insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid evolved to live on the Asian hemlocks’ sap. Various predatory beetles evolved to eat the adelgid, and the ecosystem maintained a kind of dynamic balance.

So it went for countless millennia; so it still goes for the hemlocks of China and Japan. But in 1951, a shipment of ornamental Japanese hemlock carrying adelgids arrived at a nursery in Richmond, Virginia. Soon thereafter, an insect and a tree that had never met were united, and by an unfortunate quirk of biology, the eastern hemlock proved both edible and defenseless. The adelgids pierce the sap conduits at the base of the hemlock’s needles, and the tree starves to death.

The adelgid's woolly egg sacs

The adelgid’s woolly egg sacs

The adelgid also proved to be an almost ideal invader. A female adult can, without even mating, lay up to 300 eggs at a time, and the insect has two generations in a year. The tiny nymphs don’t fly, but they are easily given wing by wind or birds. Nevertheless, the adelgid did not immediately sweep across the eastern forest. For several decades it spread slowly, perhaps as it evolved ways to better exploit the vast resources in its new and predatorless environment. In the 1980s, a hurricane that swept adelgids from Virginia up to Long Island and Connecticut seems to have triggered a faster expansion. Since then the bug has been spreading north, south, and west at up to 15 miles per year, devastating hemlock stands from Georgia to Maine.

Mostly dead hemlock

A dying hemlock in Red River Gorge

The hemlock woolly adelgid is a relative newcomer to Kentucky; it was first found in the far southeastern part of the state in 2006. Now it occupies about a fifth of the state’s counties, including Powell, Wolfe, and Menifee, where the Red River carved its gorge. On trees where the adelgid has taken up residence, the lower branches go first, but the insect can take several years to reach the higher ones. It may not be too late for Kentucky’s hemlocks—but they need help, and fast.

Scientists have found two ways to protect hemlocks. One is to inject or drench trees in an insecticide like imidacloprid (the same class of chemical implicated in honeybee colony collapse disorder) every few years. This method has the obvious drawback that it introduces a dangerous pesticide into a potentially vulnerable ecosystem. It’s also far too expensive to save even a sizable fraction of the trees in a forest. But it can temporarily preserve trees deemed particularly valuable for aesthetic or ecological reasons.

Most forest managers believe only long-term solution to the hemlock woolly adelgid invasion is to replicate the natural systems that keep the insect in check in its native Asia. That means establishing populations of adelgid predators—a process known as biocontrol. Throughout the east, scientists are breeding, screening, and releasing several different species of predatory beetles in places with heavy adelgid outbreaks. Ironically, getting a desirable exotic species to take hold in a new area can be a real challenge. And in the South, where warm winters allow the adelgid to spread faster and more virulently than further north, trees are often too far gone by the time beetles build up enough population to make a dent in the bug’s numbers. Biocontrol may not be able to stop the adelgid invasion, but it will be a critical piece of any future efforts to restore hemlocks to the eastern U.S.

Kentucky foresters and scientists can at least piggyback on the experiences of states where the adelgid hit earlier. But these places tell a mostly sorry tale. Despite millions of dollars and many smart scientists devoted to saving the mighty hemlocks of North Carolina, the trees there have mostly succumbed. In the valleys of the Great Smoky Mountains, grey skeletons line the riverbanks. In Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, a rare remnant of eastern old-growth, giant leafless trunks point skyward as mushrooms pock their decaying bark. Forest managers even took the extraordinary step of felling some of the dead trees with dynamite so they would not endanger hikers.

Two hemlock trunks in Blanton Forest

Two huge hemlock trunks in Blanton Forest

Sadly, a similar story is now playing out in Kentucky. And because it lacks world-famous sites like the Smokies and Joyce Kilmer to focus public attention and donations, the state seems to have far fewer resources to devote to its trees. As far as I can tell, only one Kentucky state employee works full-time on the hemlock. Forest managers are forced to triage, directing limited insecticide and biocontrol budgets to save select populations along streams or in heavily visited areas. And scientists doing adelgid research are stretched thin. Of those scientists, University of Kentucky forest entomologist Lynne Rieske-Kinney probably spends the most time on the insect. She has studied a variety of questions: what stream insects depend on hemlock; why are some hemlocks more resistant to the adelgid than others; what will happen to Kentucky forests if the hemlock disappears? Nevertheless, she told me the adelgid accounts for only a little more than a quarter of her research effort.

It’s impossible to know whether Kentucky, with more money, could be the place where the hemlock makes a stand. But it does seem clear that without more resources and greater public urgency, most of the state’s 70 million-plus hemlocks will soon be lost.

A hemlock graveyard in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park

A hemlock graveyard in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park

I admit I’m a latecomer to the hemlock’s fan club. I learned of the adelgid less than two years ago, from scientists in Wisconsin who worry that warming winters will allow the adelgid to reach their magnificent forests (for now, cold winters limit the insect’s northern expansion). Since then, I have seen too many hemlock graveyards—in North Carolina, in Georgia, in Virginia and Maryland, where I now live. I have also hiked among the gorgeous, still living hemlocks of Red River Gorge and Blanton Forest in eastern Kentucky. I have felt their cool shade on a hot June day. I don’t want to come back to Kentucky in a few years and find more graveyards.

Will future Kentucky teenagers romp through hemlock-shaded valleys? Or will their Gorge hold only skeletons and a few scraggly survivors of the adelgid invasion? The next few years will likely tell. And I hope that in Kentucky, scientists will be able to give this story a different ending.

This post originally appeared on The Sieve.

In 1987, Wendell Berry complained in a delightfully grumpy essay that “a number of people” were advising him to buy a computer. This new machine would, his friends and colleagues surely believed, free the great writer from the drudgery of composing by hand. It could save his drafts, allow him to cut and paste, and maybe even spell-check. So did Berry join his colleagues and leap into the digital age?

Absolutely not. He could write just fine with pencil and paper, he explained. When he finished a draft, his wife Tanya typed—and edited—his manuscript on a Royal standard typewriter (a practice that did not sit well with some feminists). A computer would disrupt the Berrys’ finely tuned “literary cottage industry”—a highly productive industry that has led to over 50 (and counting) books and collections of poems and essays. It’s easy to see why Berry would be wary.

Writing before computers

Writing before computers

I think today’s writer has far more to be wary about than Berry did, back when computers were little more than glorified typewriters. Today’s machines are spigots at the end of a pipeline delivering an endless stream of information from the outside world. Each news update and email and tweet has the potential to derail a writer’s train of thought—and yet we let them in. Do we really believe this has no effect on our ability to write?

In fact, scientists are amassing a mountain of evidence that computer-based distractions can devastate mental performance. In a recent New York Times article, journalist Bob Sullivan and scientist Hugh Thompson described a study in which they gave subjects an exam and then told some participants they would be interrupted by an instant message. The subjects who were interrupted performed 20% worse than uninterrupted test-takers. “The results,” the authors wrote, “were truly dismal.”

And it’s not just exam-taking that’s affected—it’s all kinds of mental activity. Last week on the radio program Science Friday, Stanford University psychologist Clifford Nass told host Ira Flatow that constant multitaskers are worse at focusing, thinking creatively, and even multitasking itself. “The research is almost unanimous…that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits,” Nass said. “They’re pretty much mental wrecks.”

More worrisome, these distractions also seem to have the power to make our brains want more of them. A growing body of literature suggests Internet applications harness the same neurological reward pathways that addictive drugs have long exploited. Scientists have recently identified a phenomenon known as “phantom vibration”—the feeling that a cell phone is vibrating in response to an incoming message, even when it isn’t. As someone who compulsively looks for the little parenthetical “(1)” after the word “Inbox” on my web browser, I have to say this kind of research is confirming what I know all too well from experience.

Yet despite the mounting evidence, science writers—and probably many others—face increasing pressure to embrace every new social media platform. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a writers’ conference that didn’t include, in some form, a panel of writers selling their colleagues on the glories of Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and the like. If we don’t expose ourselves to the endless volley of information bomblets, we’re told we’ll miss out on the all-important “conversation.” I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one who finds this a rather poor substitute for what we now must call “in-person” conversation.

I see from Berry’s essay that this pushing of addictive Internet technologies by their users is nothing new. Strangely, it reminds me of the peer pressure teenagers supposedly exert on each other to try cigarettes, booze, or other substances—right down to the “everybody’s doing it” message. Given the known risks, I would suggest we approach addictive technologies with some of the same caution we apply to those drugs. Perhaps we need a new DARE for the Internet age.

The author at work on his computer, ca 1987. Photo by Beate Popkin

The author at work on his computer, ca 1987. Photo by Beate Popkin

That said, I am not about to leave behind the Internet and its attendant technologies. Indeed, for a relatively new (hopefully up-and-coming) writer like me, shunning email, blogs, and social media would be professional suicide. And I appreciate that these technologies allow me to share work, like this essay, with colleagues, editors, and readers around the world. (Even Berry has lately admitted borrowing a friend’s computer to send his work to publishers.) I can’t imagine going back to pencil and paper and snail mail, nor do I wish to. I’d do as well trying to get around by horse.

But I do reject what Berry calls “technological fundamentalism”: the uncritical belief that every new technology will improve our lives. I would argue that a device or service should be judged not by whether it’s novel or whether everybody else is using it, but by whether it actually helps us do our jobs better. While social networking sites may aid writers in publishing and promoting themselves, which are certainly necessary parts of the business, they seem to be detrimental to the writer’s most fundamental task, which, I would argue, is thinking. Deep, uninterrupted thinking.

Despite all scientists have learned about the brain, thinking remains mysterious and idiosyncratic. It seems to resist being forced or hurried. But clearly it can be easily sabotaged. Let’s take a stand against the proliferating technologies that fragment our time and our thoughts. Let’s recognize that our most important tool is not the digital computer or the wireless router but the analog brain.

What do you think—have we let Internet technologies intrude too much in our lives? How do you manage the distraction deluge? Leave a comment—or better yet, tell me in person!

This post originally appeared on The Sieve.

As my devoted readers no doubt realize by now, I’m on a bit of a Rachel Carson kick. I wrote a blog post and produced a radio show about her last fall, and I’m working on an article about her for Johns Hopkins magazine (Carson got her master’s degree at Hopkins). Why this slight Carson obsession? It started with the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring, which got me wondering, as a science writer, how someone armed only with scientific knowledge and words could have such influence. I believe we science writers sometimes sell ourselves short in terms of what we can accomplish, especially in this age of disposable Web writing. Carson can remind us of the potential of writing for impact, not just for mouse clicks.

In 1953, Rachel Carson spoke at a symposium at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting. The topic was the sea frontier. Unlike the other eight panel members with whom she shared a stage, Carson was not a research scientist; she had until recently worked as a staff writer for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. (She was also the only woman on the panel). the conference she talked about the book she was writing, The Edge of the Sea, which would be based mainly on her observations, and less on the work of other scientists, as her previous books had been. Carson had scientific training, but it was her writing that earned her the speaking slot: her 1951 book The Sea Around Us had made her the nation’s most famous writer about the oceans and perhaps about all of science.

Although Rachel Carson spent almost her entire career writing about the sea, she is remembered today for her one book about things that happen on land. That book, Silent Spring, awoke the American public to the dangers of many common pesticides, and launched the environmental movement. But while the birth of environmentalism would not have happened exactly when it did and how it did without Carson’s advocacy, it would have happened: Americans would not have tolerated smoggy cities, burning rivers, and toxic chemical clouds for much longer. “I suspect that the audience [of Silent Spring] was close to an environmental awakening,” said Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist and past head of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at a symposium dedicated to Carson at this year’s AAAS meeting. “No doubt [Carson] catalyzed it, but the ground was fertile.”

Carson built her more enduring message around themes of ecological connection and interdependence, Lubchenco and her fellow speakers argued. Jane Maienschein, director of the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University and organizer of the 2013 session, noted that this motif permeated Carson’s AAAS talk, as she drew connections between what happens on land and in the oceans, as well as what happens in nature and in the human sphere. Nancy Langston, an environmental historian at the University of Wisconsin (who was not on the AAAS panel), told me that bringing this burgeoning ecological awareness to the public was, in her opinion, “probably [Carson’s] greatest legacy.”

Sharon Kingsland, a historian of science at Johns Hopkins University, took the idea of Carson as connector a step further. In her talk, she made the case that Carson united science and the humanities—the “two cultures” made famous in a 1959 lecture by British scientist and writer C. P. Snow. Specifically, Carson saw in the natural world more than just scientific facts—she saw “clues to a deeper meaning of life” that required pulling in knowledge from the realms of literature and religion as well as science. Moreover, the humanistic perspective provided a check on what Carson saw as the arrogance of scientists who thought they could dismiss the idea of the balance of nature. “This higher truth is revealed to us by contemplating ecological relationships,” Kingsland said. “The concept of the balance of nature functioned for Carson as the link between the two cultures of science and the humanities.”

That these ideas may seem obvious today is a testament to Carson’s enduring influence. But they also suggest a way in which her impact has been limited, because while we may largely accept the premises of ecological interconnectedness and the limitations of science, our actions suggest we don’t accept the conclusions. We continue to fill our environment with carcinogens, neurotoxins, and endocrine disruptors; and we continue to hope for technological solutions to environmental problems, rather than ask how we might restrain the activities that cause the problems in the first place. When I asked Langston’s UW colleague Warren Porter, an environmental toxicologist, what has changed since Carson’s time, he bluntly told me “not much.”

To me this doesn’t diminish Carson in the least. I think she accomplished as much one can with words: she changed the conversation both at the grass-roots level and at the highest ranks of government. But I would like to consider another dimension of her legacy, which is what she has given to my chosen field, science writing. Carson became a full-time science writer in 1934, at a time when no specialized training programs existed in the field, and when the National Association of Science Writers, which formed that same year, consisted of twelve members. Thus, Carson was very much a pioneer in forging a career out of writing about, rather than conducting, scientific research. UW Rachel Carson Professor of English Rob Nixon credits her with “establishing the model of the radical generalist” who “doesn’t necessarily contribute original research, but does read the research and assemble it into powerful images and story forms.” Moreover, Carson set the bar so high that no one has done it better since.

The AAAS 2013 speakers argued that Carson provides a valuable model of a writer who developed a deep subject matter expertise and an ability to write about it both precisely and lyrically. In Lubchenco’s words, she was “an honest broker” of science. Gregg Zachary, a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, said Carson was a member of a rare species: “journalists who seriously endeavor to write about complexity.” Writing has never been an easy vocation, but times are especially tough today; Zachary warned the audience that the financial support Carson had while developing her expertise and writing voice is no longer available to today’s science and environmental journalists. “They don’t have the support to put in the thousands of hours that she put in,” he said. Be that as it may, we at least have Carson as a beacon to strive towards.


Rachel Carson at microscope, 1951, Brooks Studio. Courtesy of the Rachel Carson Council

I want to contribute a related but less tangible answer to the title question. I believe that Carson matters because she gives us a model for seeing. This may seem odd, since we all know Carson for her writing; shouldn’t the skill we hope to learn from her be how to write? Well, yes. But putting words on page is merely the writer’s final act of translation. Most of what Carson did throughout her life, I would argue, was seeing. Even during her scientific training at Johns Hopkins, she spent painstaking weeks sectioning fish embryos, looking at them with a now obsolete optical device called a camera lucida, and drawing them; these drawings make a sizable fraction of her master’s thesis.

Indeed, science is essentially a process of seeing ever farther and deeper; this theme echoes from the ancient Greek philosophers through Copernicus and Galileo to deep-sea explorers to modern physicists who build enormous colliders in order to peer at the tiniest particles imaginable. But writing is also largely a process of seeing. Flannery O’Connor noted that many writers paint, “not because they’re any good at painting, but because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things.” Annie Dillard, who indeed paints, is downright obsessed with seeing: she devotes a chapter to it in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and then, for good measure, another in Teaching a Stone to Talk. Several of the most common photos of Carson show her with either binoculars or a microscope, and I don’t think this is accidental. If she achieved more—if her words went farther than those of others—it is mainly because she saw the world more precisely and penetratingly.

This theme resonates for me because I too have lately been trying to learn to see. And in doing so, I’ve realized I’ve been living half-blind. Only in the past year or so can I look at a tree in my neighborhood and have any clue what it is. I’m still all but hopeless with flowers or birds, not to even mention the insects. Even harder to see is what is not there but should be. Warren Porter told me the air used to teem with insects, before we doused our environment with pesticides and let deer and invasive species devastate the native plants that insects eat. I still can’t see the lack of them—the insects or the plants. When I look at the night sky I recognize only a few obvious shapes. And more to the point, I don’t see the missingness of the stars that earlier astronomers saw, stars that are now invisible due to light pollution.

Rachel Carson spent much of her time reading and writing, but she also went to estuaries and marshes and took rides on fishing vessels to study firsthand what was going on with the ocean. From these observations, she developed the motifs of interconnectedness and balance of nature that permeate her work, from her earliest newspaper articles to her magnum opus. If we who are writing about environmental problems today wish to learn from her, we might do well to step away from our computers for a moment, go outside, and practice seeing.

“Nature’s silence is its one remark…” –Annie Dillard [1]

The high plateau known as Dolly Sods, in Appalachian country, is a good place to consider Dillard’s statement—especially in winter.

Where's the snow?

Where’s the snow?

My friend and I hiked the Sods on a recent January day. We had come to West Virginia to ski, but a few days’ rain had washed away the season’s accumulated snow, leaving only miserable little icy patches clinging to tree roots and shady hollows. So instead we walked through a sodden world of mosses, ferns, and bogs. Water flowed from time to time down the paths, forcing us to either hop from wet rock to wet rock, or skirt the muddy edge. On our first attempt at a trail, we came to a place where water apparently flowing from both directions made a wide, foam-flecked pool, blocking the way forward. We looked for a bypass, but the rhododendron on either side was too thick. So we retreated downhill and chose a different route, which set us toward a creek two and a half miles distant.

Our new route took us through woods, across meadows, over streams, and around trees that had been knocked over like dominoes by Hurricane Sandy, blocking the path at intervals and forcing detours. The landscapes seemed scattered, random: here a grove of young beeches, there a pine plantation, a spruce forest, a blueberry meadow or a limestone outcrop. The brown leaves on the ground were frozen and matted, making a pretty papier mache earth. The ground itself was springy and crunchy, pleasant to walk on. At times we found ourselves stepping on pink and green mosses, soaked through like sponges. A low cold sky hung over us, grey as if reflecting the stones below.

It was a world of water up in the Sods, soaking ground, moss, boots, socks, pant legs. Water flowed every which way, sometimes seemingly both ways at once, turning trails into rivulets, streams, and occasional ponds. It became hard to remember one waterlogged piece of trail from another, or whether the last stream we crossed flowed left to right or right to left. Finally we came to the Red Creek, running fast and brown with tannins. The water tumbled and roared mindlessly, endlessly down a steep gorge, always changing, always the same. We stood on the wet rock next to it, struck by the display of raw, pointless power.

Amazing ice


Then there was the ice: nature’s answer to the monotony of water. We walked over ice that had frozen on the ground in paper-thin sheets, sometimes forming concentric rings like topo lines on a map. We saw ice that seemed to grow vertically from the ground, like silver hairs fixed with gel. We marveled at combs of icicles formed by waterfall spray that then froze. We saw ice deposited on trees as supercooled water in an ice storm, smoothly sheathing branches. At one point we came across an inexplicable three-inch ice stalagmite. Later on our walk back we saw it again, comforting us that we were on the right path. That tiny unexpected sliver of ice was more distinct, and thus more memorable, than any of the much larger visual clues in our vast landscape.

For me, ice in the temperate zone is precious and should be treated like fine glassware. But my friend enjoyed breaking the thin veneers of ice that formed over depressions in the trail, figuring, I suppose, that nature would do the same in a day or two.

We shared the place with no one and no creature that I saw, save, briefly, one bird. Besides him (or her), we were the only audience in this cold theater. Others were living there; we could tell because we saw what they left behind on the trail. But they didn’t care to put in an appearance that day. Where were they—and what secret scenes were we not witnessing?

And what were we doing there, anyway? Unlike the animals, we had no food to find there, no vital purpose driving us. Indeed, there was precious little up there we could have eaten: moss, maybe? Not much shelter either, nor creature comforts. We ate peanut butter-jelly sandwiches and trail mix on a cold rock and didn’t linger: only movement kept the blood flowing. Were we there to “keep an eye on things,” as Dillard suggests? Why not let the scene play to an empty house? The players don’t care—the beeches would have shivered; the spruces would have whispered; the water would have seeped, trickled, and spilled all the same without us.

I admit I don’t have a better answer, beyond the meeting of eye and sky, ear and torrent, face and chilled air. In short, we went there for sensations and unexpected things.

* * *

It’s awfully lonely, isn’t it, having only ourselves to talk to? The rest of nature seems to speak a language we’ve forgotten: one of scents, chemicals, magnetic cues, photoperiods, and subtle sounds beneath our threshold of hearing. We sense these things too, vestigially, but we’ve become so enthralled with our pretty speech, like babies practicing nonsense words, we practically refuse to listen to anything else. Nature has become a foreign country, we need to relearn the language.

Sometimes I wonder about our frantic activity on this planet. Is it just a palliative for some deeper loneliness, a loneliness we brought upon ourselves by deciding to speak only to each other? Otherwise why do we expend so much effort to constantly gather together, when it rarely brings us food, shelter, or any of the other necessities of life? And why do the world’s religions seem to agree on at least one thing: humans should couple and create more of themselves?

As we’ve ballooned to seven billion and beyond, we’ve had a collective impact on this planet at once superficial and profound. We’ve rearranged most of the land surface, except for those places that are truly inhospitable. We appropriate nearly half the planet’s biological productivity—we, who are only one species out of 10 million or more! And we have taken it upon ourselves to liberate from the ground, in a couple of centuries, quantities of carbon the earth has been storing for millions of years. We may dominate earth’s ecosystems, as a group of prominent ecologists has suggested, and yet, I can imagine the other members of those ecosystems laughing ruefully at our absorbed self-importance. All of humanity has become like that annoying American abroad who can’t understand why the people around him don’t understand English, and thinks maybe if he just talks louder… Meanwhile, our atmospheric carbon blanket thickens, the extinctions pile up, and we careen ever faster toward our strange and unknowable future.

* * *

Once I realized we wouldn’t be skiing, I wanted to write another piece about the death of winter. But Chip Chase, the owner of the Whitegrass cross-country ski “resort,” complicated things for me. He told me that bare ground in winter is not unusual for him—in West Virginia you’re always on the edge of good snow, and even in January you’re prone to warm spells. In fact, Chip said some of the past few years—which have been some of the warmest on record globally—have also been some of his best. This season, for example, Sandy dumped two feet of snow in late October, and the season was off and running.

So much for easy narratives.

[1] Dillard, A. “Teaching a Stone to Talk.” Harper & Row, 1982.